First off, let me just say that those of you who clicked this article because of the headline are absolutely disgusting people. Morbid individuals, all of you.
With that out of the way, let me share what the Washington Post reported on this week in their running series on injuries in the NFL, “Do No Harm: Who Should Bear the Costs of Retired NFL Players’ Medical Bills?”
Reggie Williams, a model linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1976 to 1989, a man who set franchise records, was a member of two Super Bowl teams, and was an accomplished humanitarian, currently lives a life that is a far cry from the one he lives while active in the National Football League.
According to the article, Williams has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in just the last decade going through countless surgeries, infections as a result of those procedures, and more surgeries and treatment to stop the infections. He’s had multiple knee replacements which have resulted in one leg being three inches shorter than the other, and it’s an absolute certainty that he’ll need more surgeries if he hopes to be able to continue to use his legs.
Oh, and the NFL and the Bengals have fought Williams in court over who should foot the bill for his football-related injuries, years after the fact.
Sally Jenkins and Rick Maese have done an incredible job with the series thus far, and their words continue to shed light on some serious issues the League faces in the near future. Here’s the gist of this most recent piece.
Critics say the NFL’s medical benefits don’t adequately address the full range of these problems. The NFL’s health insurance lasts five years after retirement — players who lasted fewer than three seasons don’t qualify for it at all — but the most serious health consequences of a football career often don’t manifest for a decade or more.
The NFL’s disability board, jointly administered by management and the players’ union, has a denial rate of almost 60 percent. When players file for workers’ compensation for the on-the-job harm they suffered, they often find their claims opposed by their former teams. The league is currently in legal and legislative fights with at least 3,000 former players, who, like Williams, have attempted to seek reparation for their injuries by filing claims in worker-friendly states. When these claims and all other avenues for medical care are exhausted, the cost of their poor health can often fall on the taxpayer.
Get that? So, basically, when the rich men who run the League refuse to help assist their former players with the medical bills they accrue years after putting their bodies through hell just to fill the fat cats’ pockets, they turn to Medicare for assistance. Those medical bills end up getting paid for with our hard-earned tax dollars.
The lengths to which teams will go is surprising. Surprising to me, and as it turns out, surprising to the players.
Players are often shocked to discover that the team doctors and trainers who once cared for them often testify against them. That was the case with Jeff Uhlenhake, an offensive lineman for the Redskins who in 1997 suffered injuries to his ankle and knee and filed for workers’ comp in Virginia. The Redskins fought the case for five years, all the way to the state supreme court.
The team argued that Uhlenhake’s injuries resulted from “voluntary participation” in the league and he should have “automatically” expected to be injured because football is inherently dangerous. “Professional football players must accept the risk of injury if they wish to play the game,” the team argued in court filings. The Redskins made a similar contention in a workers’ comp case as recently as 2012, against Darnerian McCants.
Two Redskins trainers and two team doctors testified against Uhlenhake, who ultimately won compensation for his ankle but not his knee.
The NFL responds to the former players’ claims in the article by pointing to their new Disability Plan which has paid out $75 million to 1,355 players in the last year, and a joint-replacement benefit program and brain-related disease plan, both established in 2007. According to the article, 345 players have received joint-replacement assistance totaling $824,295 and 233 have been approved from assistance with brain diseases totaling $23,043,092.
The process to get such assistance is tedious, though, as Williams found out.
With his 2005 double knee replacement, Williams’s health spiraled down. Disney (his employer at the time) insurance again paid most of his medical bills, but he spent a fortune on related expenses that weren’t covered, including moving to New York while he underwent nine operations in five months to save his leg.
By then Williams had been forced to leave his job at Disney, unable to work while coping with the chronic pain and continual health crises. With his right leg so much shorter than his left, other complications set in. By 2009, Williams’s Cobra benefits from his Disney insurance had expired. Doctors told him he would be on antibiotics for the rest of his life to fight infections and would likely have to again go under the knife. “My concern is that there is going to be another operation,” he says, “and I’m totally uninsured right now.”
Williams explored filing for NFL disability, but fell into one of its bureaucratic filters, he says. Lawyers advised him the surest route to qualifying was to first be approved for Social Security disability. After months of red tape, he says, the government rejected him on the grounds that his title at Disney qualified him as an executive, and football-related knee trauma didn’t preclude working at a desk job, despite the fact that leg pain makes it impossible for him to sit for long periods.
“As an executive in corporate America, you don’t need legs,” he says sarcastically.
His lawyer told him the rejection meant he had a poor chance of qualifying for NFL disability. In 2008, Williams instead applied to the league’s joint replacement program. He did so on the day he was discharged from the Hospital for Special Surgery, limping on crutches and in a full leg cast into the NFL offices on Park Avenue to submit his application in person. The process required some 50 pages of paperwork, he says, and took two years to process.
He finally received a letter from the league in 2010 telling him he was approved for a payment of slightly more than $5,000, a fraction of what his multiple replacements cost. Also, he needed to do more paperwork to collect it.
In disgust, Williams never bothered to finish the claim.
How the NFL and owners treat their former players is utterly shocking and disgusting.
Oh, I owe you some pictures, don’t I?
Here’s some of what the Post and other outlets have captured.